Are you lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender and heading home for the holidays? I don’t need to tell you how potentially stressful such a trip could be. Part of the problem is the blast of “Norman Rockwell” images that sell the holidays as a time when families lovingly gather in peace and harmony. The reality for most families, especially those with an LGBT member, is not quite the same. We believe in the magic of the holidays and expect difficult or disapproving family members to (finally!) behave differently this time. When they don’t, it brings up unhealed hurts and points of ongoing battle. This expectation then leads to disappointment with self and family as tensions arise around the dinner table.
As fully or partially out gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender adults, we have worked hard to gain a sense of self-worth and maturity, and we have an expectation that we will be able to now handle family relationships. However, many of us are often quite disappointed by the reality of a return home, which can inflame wounds around being rejected, or being only tolerated rather than fully accepted. Intrusive questions, snide remarks that indicate a lack of understanding and acceptance, as well as the need to hide from some or all family members are what faces many of us when we return to the old homestead. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in many places, like single straights, we may start to feel pressure from our families to find the right person and “settle down.” Mix these factors with the frequent regression to unwanted roles that many, including non-LGBT folks experience: the favored daughter, the scapegoated son, the peacemaker between warring parents--add alcohol, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
However, it is possible to survive and even thrive during the holidays if you are L, G, B, or T. Here is my “ABC plan for LGBT people during holiday gatherings” that I hope will guide individuals and families through the sometimes rocky terrain of a family table filled with turkey, sweet potatoes, resentments, and recriminations.
• A is for Acknowledgement (and Acceptance.) Try to prepare by acknowledging what the potential arguments or issues might be ahead of time so that you are prepared, at least somewhat. It is worth mentioning that holiday celebrations are NEVER a good time to newly announce that you are gay or transgender. So if you are not yet out, save the announcement until after the holiday visit, and emotionally prepare yourself to be in the closet for a bit longer. If you are already out, try to be prepared for what you can predict will be the bumps in the road. Will your born-again sister-in-law start spouting biblical scriptures directly or indirectly criticizing your sexuality or gender identity? Probably. Then, bring acceptance to the table by remembering that things are not perfect, they don’t have to be, and you can’t control anyone’s behavior but your own. Heated arguments at the dinner table will not elicit a change of heart (trust me). Find a soft way to respond and gently dismiss such comments with a response like, “It’s the holidays, let’s avoid religion and politics and talk about something less controversial.” Also, know when to just “let go of the rope.” When all else fails and family members misbehave, ignore it for now and follow up later with a friend or a partner to vent and get support: “You’ll never believe what my mother said to me before passing the turkey!”
• B is for Boundaries. Do the best that you can to set limits with yourself and others during the holidays. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Too much of what we do with our families during the holidays is about obligation, and can feel forced upon us. If your family does not accept who you are, you owe them nothing, period. Feel free to politely but firmly decline an invitation to a family event if you think it would be better for your emotional health—and do something on the holiday you find to be fun and/or emotionally nurturing, (e.g. visit a friend, go for a long walk, read a good book, binge watch Orange Is the New Black). If you choose to visit, set good limits and boundaries. For example, if you would feel more comfortable staying in a nearby hotel rather than the family home, assert that in a firm but calm way, not in an argument. When tensions arise and you are beginning to feel overwhelmed or out of control, separate yourself. Take a walk; get a breath of fresh air. It can help significantly.
• C is for Compassion. Try to have compassion for yourself and for your family. There is a Latin phrase, “Amor fati,” meaning love your fate, which is relevant here. Find a way toward acceptance rather than judgment or perfectionism. If you chose to attempt to maintain a relationship with your family, even if they are struggling with who you are, try to accept them even though they don’t fully accept you—not out of a sense of obligation but because in the long run, arriving at an emotional separation, (“that’s them and this is me,”) may be better for your own mental health. If you just came out to them, give them time and space to get used to the news. Try to cultivate compassion by remembering that some of the family problems and attitudes you are now facing may have been going on for generations, and this may help you gain some perspective and diminish blame. This is the family you have been given, so try to find ways to understand and accept them while maintaining your own integrity.
Most of all, remember that at the end of the visit you get to go home. The holidays do not last forever, so do your best to be compassionate to yourself for that brief period of time.